This unfortunate opinion piece was published in today’s New York Times, and given that it made me feel so sad and so nauseated at the same time, I figured it deserved a blogged response. Author Eric Weiner asks, “Americans: Undecided About God?” It would have been more accurate to say, “Eric Weiner: Reluctant to admit to atheism?”
For a nation of talkers and self-confessors, we are terrible when it comes to talking about God. The discourse has been co-opted by the True Believers, on one hand, and Angry Atheists on the other. What about the rest of us?
The rest of us, it turns out, constitute the nation’s fastest-growing religious demographic. We are the Nones, the roughly 12 percent of people who say they have no religious affiliation at all. The percentage is even higher among young people; at least a quarter are Nones.
If we atheists can be characterized as typically “Angry” about anything, it’s that people keep mischaracterizing us with unfair generalizations and stereotypes. It’s often assumed that we’re militant fundamentalists just because we dare to express any disagreement with religious dogma. And we get this garbage from “Nones” like Mr. Weiner, too, who you might think would be able to sympathize!
Unfortunately for Weiner’s argument, the “Nones” actually include atheists — a fact which he admits later and then promptly ignores. Since I am a-theistic (without a belief in a god or gods), I do not have a religious affiliation. He just wants to create a category for himself to be in that doesn’t include people like me, since we make religious Americans nervous. I guess the category, as he envisions it, is for people who aren’t able to believe in a god but really, really want to:
Nones are the undecided of the religious world. We drift spiritually and dabble in everything from Sufism to Kabbalah to, yes, Catholicism and Judaism…. We are more religiously polarized than ever. In my secular, urban and urbane world, God is rarely spoken of, except in mocking, derisive tones. It is acceptable to cite the latest academic study on, say, happiness or, even better, whip out a brain scan, but God? He is for suckers, and Republicans.
I used to be that way, too, until a health scare and the onset of middle age created a crisis of faith, and I ventured to the other side. I quickly discovered that I didn’t fit there, either. I am not a True Believer. I am a rationalist. I believe the Enlightenment was a very good thing, and don’t wish to return to an age of raw superstition.
We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.
If you “have a dog in this hunt,” Mr. Weiner, you might not be as rational as you assume yourself to be. I am an atheist because I haven’t seen evidence or logical argumentation that justifies belief in a god. If new evidence or solid logic presents itself, I have no problem with changing my mind. That’s what being a rationalist means. Approaching religion by actively pursuing a certain outcome is really the opposite of the Enlightenment-style, scientific mindset you claim to have.
But it turns out that truth doesn’t actually matter to him!
Nones don’t get hung up on whether a religion is “true” or not, and instead subscribe to William James’s maxim that “truth is what works.” If a certain spiritual practice makes us better people — more loving, less angry — then it is necessarily good, and by extension “true.” (We believe that G. K. Chesterton got it right when he said: “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”)
Are you kidding me? Are. You. Kidding. Me. If an idea being pleasant actually made it “by extension ‘true,'” you wouldn’t have to put “true” in scare quotes. How many times do we have to explain this? It would be good if nobody in the world was starving. Guess what? Still true that there are starving people. It would be good if there were no wars, no violence. Guess what? Wishing doesn’t make it so. I’m certain that I would be on the whole “more loving, less angry” if it were true that I already had my PhD and could put graduate school behind me. But guess what? I still have to finish that dissertation before it becomes a reality.
When Weiner refers to people who are “hung up on whether a religion is ‘true'” he’s made it sound like a bad thing. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong — in fact, everything right — with believing things only when they are most likely to correspond with the real world. Doing otherwise is known as being delusional.
We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.
Eric Weiner, you don’t want a new religion, you want to have your cake and eat it too. Religions are systems of supernatural beliefs. If they encouraged doubt and experimentation to form the basis of beliefs, they wouldn’t be religions, they’d be science. And if you want to be able to talk about an undefined, unverifiable, unlikely being and not be ridiculed for it … well, let’s just say the scientific community is not the place for you.